Maryland State Del. Tiffany T. Alston campaigned in the fall as a supporter of marriage rights for all Marylanders. When legislation was introduced a few weeks ago to make our state a pioneer for this fundamental civil right, Alston didn’t just voice support, she signed on as a co-sponsor. But when the bill came up for a crucial committee vote, Alston simply didn’t show up. Though she continues to proclaim that guaranteeing marriage equality is the right thing to do, she ended up voting against the bill in committee, and her opposition was one reason why the bill never made it to the House floor for a final vote.
What happened to Alston? It’s simple: The African American religious community made her phone ring off the hook. They put on the squeeze, and she sold her soul.
This brings up a fundamental dilemma in representative government: Does a legislator owe allegiance to “what’s right” or to the clamor of constituents, when those two principles are in opposition?
On the one hand, I simply don’t believe in the ultimate wisdom (or virtue) of most politicians. I think they should listen carefully to constituents and be guided by them in most circumstances. On the other hand, enlightened democracy is not about mob rule: Not every question of public policy should be subject to the whims of whoever can whip up the most fervor or contribute the most money.
But here are two reasons why Del. Alston’s behavior was clearly wrong in this case: The minor reason is that she ran publicly as favoring gay marriage. She didn’t spring her position on an unsuspecting electorate as some sort of purposeful subterfuge. The voters knew whom they were electing, which attenuates their right to demand a change of position.
The major reason why Alston is wrong is that civil rights and civil liberties ought never be subject to majority will. Otherwise, would school desegregation or interracial marriage have become the law of the land in the middle of last century?
So, why is it right to follow the hatred and vitriol of constituents when they demand discrimination against one of the last minority groups in this country whom it is still “ok” to hate? Bigotry is bigotry and must be opposed whenever it rears its ugly head.
Two more points:
— Those homophobic African Americans who fought to defeat gay marriage should be ashamed of themselves. I always find it stunning to see oppressed people who -- when they gain some measure of power -- turn it against others who are oppressed. (Are you listening, Israel?)
— Religion has no place in the formation of public policy. I don’t give a hoot what your particular interpretation of your particular holy text suggests to you about the need to persecute someone else. Separation of church and state cannot stop you from hating in your heart, but it ought to prevent you from legislating based on that hatred.
Here’s hoping that Maryland eventually rises above the bigotry. Advocates for equal rights will be back next year and -- just as with the train started by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. -- we may well be detoured, but our eventual victory is assured.